Ukraine and the Illusion of Post-History

Many people were surprised by a new war in Europe. But for my generation, the famous “end of history” never happened. Especially if you are from Venezuela

Photo: Getty Images

I was at my desk reading an ebook about Carlos Andrés Pérez and got distracted by a tweet notification saying that Russian forces had invaded Ukraine. My friend was just waking up in Sicily when she got a text message from me. Another friend was in Oregon when she found out on Reddit. We didn’t know then the extent of the tragedy that was about to unfold, but we knew this was a historic event. Not unlike how previous generations remember what they were doing when 9/11 happened, or where they were when the news of El Caracazo reached them, my generation of Venezuelans will remember precisely when they found out about the war in Ukraine. For the first time in our lifetime, there’s war in Europe and we can see it on our phones. 

This isn’t the first conflict in the era of social media, but it may be the first one where real-time video is the language of social media. For instance, look at TikTok. What was an app for dancing and gimmicks has become useful to narrate the grim reality of war. Now, more than ever, we can see the extent of the suffering in the stories coming out of places like Kyiv and Mariupol. We hear the sounds of the bombing. We see the images of the destruction of the cities, like the horrific mass graves in the village of Bucha. We even can see TikToks of people documenting their evacuation, as with this famous post by Valeria Shashenok. How can we not believe that this has made a difference in our perception of war? What makes this particularly hard, is the realization that this war is not one single tragedy, but rather millions of individual tragedies permanently affecting the lives of families forever.

We are no longer spectators watching a foreign war from afar, but active witnesses of many of these individual tragedies, unable to do much else than to continue watching and reacting in our feeds.

Not watching and interacting through social media feels like ignoring it. During these weeks of doomscrolling through social media, and even on the cover of TIME magazine, there was an underlying idea arguing that we were witnessing the “return of history”—implying that history had previously ended. Many of the reactions stated that our society had overcome events like these and wasn’t supposed to see them again. 

The Bias of “Endism”

I like to call this type of vision of history “endism.” The belief that history has ended. This perspective sees history as a series of stages of irreversible progress, all building to an “end” point where human life will continue without major problems. It is the belief that, somehow, we currently are living after the end of history. I think that this perspective has permeated our understanding of contemporary history and its prevalence makes the victories that we have achieved in democracy and human rights vulnerable.

While it has earlier proponents, the idea of endism is mostly associated with political scientist Francis Fukuyama and his book The End of History and the Last Man. There, he argued that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, there would no longer be any competitors to democracy and capitalism. These systems would expand around the world slowly ushering in an era of little international conflict: the end of history. 

In the early 90s, there was widespread optimism after the fall of the USSR. Improvements in human rights, economics, and technology were reasons to believe that we were approaching that utopian situation. The idea of endism made sense. Yet, I was born in January 2000, nine years after the supposed end of history, the collapse of the USSR, and what I have experienced throughout my life tells me very clearly that, while many things have improved, history is not over. There’s plenty of evidence after the fall of the Soviet Union to make us shake this vision off. 

My generation has had to witness challenging historical events in the first few decades of our life. This has certainly affected our perspective of the world, especially after the collective trauma of the pandemic. But it’s not only COVID-19, take into account that most of us only know a post-9/11 world.

We had our childhoods marked by the global financial crisis of 2008, the Arab Spring, and the Syrian refugee crisis. Venezuelans had to deal with the collapse of our country as we know it.

Add to all of this global democratic backsliding, and now a war in Europe. We are very aware of the complexity, and sometimes terrifying nature of the world. I cannot speak for all of Gen-Z, but to me it seems that every time tragedies strike, the world acts surprised, repeating the same idea: “This was not supposed to happen.” But in our eyes, the world Gen-Z lives in is a world where things like this happen often and are very connected to the historical trends that started in the 20th century. Endism rendered society unable to see the writing on the wall. The horrific events in the mid-90s after the collapse of the USSR—the Balkans War, the Rwandan Genocide, the Cuban special period and even the Gulf War—are evidence that conflict never ended. In our eyes, the world just stopped paying as close attention to the trends under a false notion of victory and is shocked to find that reality is otherwise. 

What is happening in Ukraine is one of the biggest tragedies in recent history and is also an example of the problems of endism. The tensions between Russia and Ukraine have been boiling for decades. Russia’s military expansionism was shown in Chechnya, Georgia, and the Crimean crisis. Conflict continued to happen around the world during the last 30 years. There was a real possibility of it happening in Europe. Perhaps our belief that our present is disconnected from the convoluted 20th century or that this was never supposed to happen again prevented us from doing more to prevent it. The trends of authoritarianism, expansionism, and conflict continued while we celebrated. Our collective failure to understand that the ghosts of the past still haunt us enabled them to thrive in the present.

Fukuyama never went to Caracas

We don’t have to look too far to find other examples. The case of Venezuela also shows us the dangers of endism. After the Perez Jimenez dictatorship fell in 1958, we were made to believe that autocracy couldn’t thrive again. I remember growing up seeing people feeling skeptical about how much our institutions could devolve and dismissing comparisons to Cuba with a “this wouldn’t happen here” mentality. Yet, here we are with over 20 years of chavismo in our history books. Statements like these are heard in all the receding democracies, or about concerns about future pandemics or even about climate change. It seems that, against a preponderance of the evidence, we believe that our world is immune to tragedy. 

I’m not trying to say that we should abandon all hope, embrace pessimism and expect the worst to happen. I continue to believe, just as John Green says, that hope is the right response to existence. But this hope should not be rooted in the inevitability of a utopian future, as endism suggests. Rather, hope should come out of love for the victories that we have achieved. People in my generation are growing up in a world with the benefits of rights, democracy, and the international liberal order. The world is certainly better off than it was 30 years ago. Yet, any civil right or democracy that is not actively protected is facing the risk of disappearing and, to actively protect these victories, we need to stop the pretense that they are irreversible. While we thought it was over, history was getting ahead of us and there’s a long way before we can catch up.